While the government spends tens of millions of dollars on large scale, militarized counternarcotics offensives in Nariño, and to the north in Urabá and Chocó, drug traffickers are moving record amounts of cocaine through Buenaventura, facilitated by industrial scale corruption.
The most sophisticated drug traffickers prefer to move drug consignments by shipping container. This is because, if you can get a container onto a ship, you can send it almost anywhere in the world, usually with minimal risk of it ever being opened. The cocaine shipment contained within therefore passes through as few hands as possible, reducing costs and risks of seizure and betrayal. It is for this reason that container ports are traditionally some of the most fought over real estate by drug traffickers, not only in Colombia, but around the region. Container shipping is simply good business for drug traffickers and allows them to maximize profits while minimizing risk.
The Colombian government is spending tens of millions of dollars, and dozens of lives, fighting the drug trade in Nariño, Urabá and Chocó, at the top and bottom of the Pacific Coast. However, it seems to be paying a lot less attention to the most important cocaine departure point sat in the middle Pacific coastline, the port of Buenaventura.
Where possible, Colombian drug traffickers now prefer using silver (plata) to lead (plomo), bribery as opposed to violence. And evidence suggests that Buenaventura is eminently open to bribes. The latest scandal to hit the front pages has been the case of Ambuila family. Omar Ambuila, an official from Colombia’s National Directorate of Taxes and Customs (DIAN) on a humble salary, is charged with money laundering, aiding smuggling, illicit enrichment and conspiracy to commit a crime. Social media accounts linked to his daughter reveal her posing alongside her Lamborghini. The Mafia control of the port has been so open, that DIAN Director Claudia Gaviria narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Buenaventura, while the director of the Tax and Customs Police (Policía Fiscal y Aduanera), General Juan Carlos Buitrago, has received death threats after seeking to look into the port.
But what has not hit the front pages is corruption among the anti-narcotics police tasked with protecting the port from drug traffickers. When InSight Crime carried out field research there last year, we found that some officers had been removed from their posts amid accusations of corruption, although no charges were ever filed. There were accusations that the police diving teams charged with searching the undersides of boats were placing, not removing, cocaine.
We looked at the system that monitors containers entering the port. It is capable of searching one container every seven minutes. After spending a day counting the number of containers that went through, the reality was more like one every 30 minutes. With over one million containers passing through the port of Buenaventura, the anti-narcotics police have the ability, working at full capacity ever day of the year, to check just 74,000 containers. That is around eight percent of the total. For a drug trafficker, assuming an eight percent risk of seizure is a risk he will gladly take. Losing eight percent of his shipments is simply the cost of doing business. The truth, however, is that perhaps as little as three percent of all containers are really checked. And this is only remotely effective if we assume that the port authorities are not on the mafia payroll and simply waving through containers already “contaminated” with cocaine.
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Colombia is under intense international pressure to stem the flow of cocaine from its shores. Most of the counternarcotics resources are deployed against coca farmers who earn an average of $120 for every kilogram of coca base they produce. Or against the illegal armies which control many of the coca-growing regions, which earn up to $500 for every kilogram of cocaine sold. Yet the drug traffickers who manage to put drugs into a container via Buenaventura, headed to Europe, will earn some $30,000 per kilogram. Yet they receive a much smaller share of state attention and resources.
Buenaventura is a battleground in the drug trade that would costs less lives, less money and could have more impact on the criminal earnings from cocaine than punishing coca farmers and fighting illegal armies in Nariño and Chocó. I am not saying this must not be done. Anyone who breaks the law in Colombia must face the consequences and the state should have presence and control over every inch of national territory. However, would the drug war not be better served throwing more resources at dismantling the corruption and Mafia infrastructure in Buenaventura?
It is time for Colombia to shift resources and focus. Continue eradication and interdiction, arrest those who break the law. But dedicate more resources to going after the big money that threatens to undermine democracy through bribery and corruption, while funding all the links in the cocaine production chain. This makes better business sense, allows the state to get a bigger bang for its buck, impacts the drug trade far more, and has the advantage of being more humane. It’s a win-win, surely?